Alien Translation Exercise

Alien Exercise Matt BriggsThis is an exercise that poet David Romtvedt gave to my class at the Centrum high school writing workshop in 1989. The result of that exercise became my first published story, “Does I Owning?” in a zine in 1992. The story appears in my collection Misplaced Alice. I’ve used this exercise from time to time over the years. I used it this last friday at the Puget Sound Community School. I’ll include the my result from the exercise below, and then the exercise I’ll call “Alien Translation Exercise.”


1. Mnu Umn Obo Pah

mnuumnobo (Mp3)

mnu umn obo pah
bo ah bo ah gah
nun mun num mun fah
ob ob bo ob ob mnuh
ana an na ana unah
un un nu un boh
mm mm um mm ah
in un in im ah
obo unm mm mnuh

2. direct

person-grain singular people talk
woman out comes out and over
substance copious substance more
grain pile into a pile
man in man around
children never create children
always always now drug across
bit by bit by bit by and by
nothing procreates nothing out
a personal voice is not the voice of a crowd

3. translation

A person is a singular voice that talks.
Again and again a woman is a source of a person.
Each singular person accumulates into a crowd.
A man piles on men in an endless accumulation.
A child never creates children.
They are now something that will be always.
Moment by moment they are made by women and men by and by.
Nothing becomes something and something becomes everything.
You cannot hear a person in a mob.


In the exercise you will:

  1. Make up a short sound passage. You can repeat sounds. Just imagine you are speaking in tongues or an alien language. It can be as bizarre as you like. The idea is to just to speak a fake language.
  2. Write down what you just said without worrying a great deal the sense of what you are writing. You are going to write down in our “normal’ alphabet as well as you can the sounds you made. You said something in “not English or any other language known to humans.” This is always a problem because our alphabet has limited sounds, and you may have made some really odd sounds. Do what you can and don’t worry about being “accurate.”
  3. Examine what it is you have written. Think about what it might mean. Begin to decipher what it is you have written. That means you are going to begin to assign English language words and concepts to the phrases you have written. Work through the piece and make a “direct translation” — don’t worry about making regular English sentences. Worry instead about trying to “make meaning” in what you wrote.
  4. Make a smooth English language version from step 3. You may want to think about Step 1 and 2 as you do this, and think about how you might be able to capture the “sound” of the original, but balance this against the need in this step to create sensible sentences.

Some observations:

  • This does not need to be a poem. It can be a paragraph.
  • Don’t worry about making sense until the very end, and even then, you are trying to translate something and there is a difficulty in that since some things will be gained and some things will be lost. Accept that this is part of the process.
  • This exercise rewards being random and will be painfully difficult if you are deeply concerned about things like “sense,” “logic,” or “spelling.”
  • While teaching the workshop, the students asked “how long,” and I said, “250 words.” I think that was too many. Maybe 100-150 words.


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